In chapter 1 of the book of Acts, we read how the Lord ascended back to heaven, leaving the Apostles to chose someone else to replace Judas who had killed himself. And then in chapter 2 we read what happened on the Day of Pentecost. On that day, the Lord’s disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. There was the sound of a rushing wind. There were flames of fire. They were able to praise God in other languages. And when a crowd gathered to see what was happening, Peter explained that the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, from his throne in heaven, had sent his Spirit upon them. And he sent his Spirit on them to fulfil the promise God had made through the OT prophet Joel that in the last days he would pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people. All kinds of people would receive his Spirit and would be added to his church.
Later, after Stephen was killed, the believers fled from Jerusalem and were scattered here, there and everywhere. And one of them, Philip the Evangelist, came to a city in Samaria. And he preached the gospel to the Samaritans. The Samaritans were half-Jews and half-Gentiles. And many of them believed and were baptised. And when Peter and John arrived to see what was happening, the Samaritan believers were also filled with the Holy Spirit. God was keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people. Not just the Jews, but Samaritans too were filled with his Spirit and were added to the church.
And then, in Acts 10, we read how Cornelius and the members of his household were also filled with the Holy Spirit. And, of course, Cornelius was a Gentile. And so, once again, God was keeping his promise to pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people.
Salvation — the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life — salvation and membership of Christ’s church is not for the Jews only. And it’s not for the Jews and Samaritans only. It’s for the Gentiles too. And in the book of Acts, we’ve seen how the Lord Jesus, from his throne in heaven, has been building his church here on earth through the preaching of the gospel by the power of his Holy Spirit. And believing Jews and believing Samaritans and believing Gentiles were being saved from the wrath and curse of God and they were being added to the church.
Verses 1 to 3
In verse 1 of chapter 11 we read that the news of what happened in the home of Cornelius reached the ears of the Apostles and of the other believers who were living in the region of Judea. They all heard about this new thing that had happened and they were talking about it.
And, of course, the way Luke describes what had happened is really very significant. If I were writing verse 1, I’d probably say that the Apostles had heard that the Gentiles had become Christians. Or, they had become believers. But Luke doesn’t say that. He says they received the word of God. You see, throughout the book of Acts, Luke has been emphasising the importance of the word of God and the preaching of God’s word and how the Holy Spirit works through the preaching of God’s word to convince and convert sinners. For instance, back in chapter 4, the Apostles prayed to God to help them to speak his word with great boldness, despite the threats they were facing. And after they prayed, we read how the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and what? And they spoke the word of God boldly.
Then in Acts 6 we have the problem of how to ensure the widows were cared for properly. It was an important work which shouldn’t be neglected. However, the Apostles were also agreed that they shouldn’t neglect the ministry of the word. They needed to devote themselves to prayer and to preaching. And so, once they had appointed deacons to care for the widows, they were able to continue their preaching ministry. And we read how the word of God spread and the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.
Then in Acts 8 we read that those who had been scattered because of persecution preached the word wherever they went. They preached it in Samaria and many Samaritans accepted the word of God. The Apostles in Jerusalem then sent Peter and John to see what was happening. And when they came, they too proclaimed the word of the Lord in many Samaritan villages.
And, then, in Acts 10, Peter went into the home of Cornelius. And Cornelius explained that he had sent for Peter and was ready to hear everything the Lord had commanded him to tell them. And so, Peter preached about Jesus Christ. And while he was still preaching God’s word, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.
Do you see? In the book of Acts, Jesus Christ is building his church here on earth. And he builds it through the preaching of God’s word and by the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, given this emphasis on the preaching of God’s word, it’s no surprise that Luke writes in verse 1 of chapter 11 that the Gentiles had received the word of God. Jesus Christ works through the preaching of his word and believers are therefore characterised as those who have received this word.
However, when Peter went up to Jerusalem, some of the believers criticised him for what he had done. And we have their complaint in verse 3:
You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.
Now, those who complained were Jewish believers. Since they were believers, they believed that the Lord Jesus was the only Saviour and that he died for our sins and rose again afterwards. They were believers. But since they were Jews, they were brought up believing that salvation was for the Jews only. Of all the nations of the world, God had chosen the Jews alone to be his special people. And the Gentiles would only lead them astray. We have the example of Solomon in the Old Testament who married many foreign wives and they tempted him to worship false gods. The Gentiles would only lead them astray. And you couldn’t mix with the Gentiles or eat with them, because they didn’t follow the Jewish laws about what was clean and unclean and suitable to eat. So, faithful Jews were meant to keep away from Gentiles. And yet, here was Peter, actually eating with a Gentile. What did he think he was doing?
Verses 4 to 18
So, we read in verse 4 how Peter began to explain his actions to them. And really, in verses 5 to 17 he repeats what we’ve already heard in chapter 10. And it’s interesting that Luke records the same story a second time because by repeating it, Luke is showing us how important, how significant this episode is. It’s like the account of the Lord’s death and resurrection. It’s so important that all four gospel writers include it in their gospel. And the conversion of Cornelius and his household to faith in Christ and their acceptance by God is so significant that it’s recorded for us twice. This episode marks a real turning point in the history of the NT church, because it’s here that it becomes clear that salvation is no longer for the Jews only, but it’s for all who believe. As God promised through the Old Testament prophet Joel:
everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
So, in verses 5 to 10 Peter refers to the vision he received from the Lord when he was still in Joppa. By that vision, God revealed to him that he ought not to call anything impure that God has made clean. In other words, if God is prepared to forgive and accept Gentiles who were once regarded as unclean, then so should Peter and every other Jewish believer.
Then in verse 11 we have the arrival of Cornelius’s servants who were sent to fetch Peter. And, in verse 12, Peter adds that the Holy Spirit told him to go with them.
In verses 13 and 14 he recounts Cornelius’s side of the story. An angel had instructed Cornelius to send for Peter. Why? Verse 14: The angel explained that Peter would bring Cornelius a message through which he and his household will be saved. Now, that verse is also important and it fits in with what Luke is trying to teach us about the importance of God’s word and preaching for our salvation. How does God save sinners? Well, first of all, he had to send his Son into the world to live for us and to die for us and to rise again afterwards. That’s crucial. But afterwards, he also sends us preachers to tell us the good news about Jesus Christ. Think again of what Paul wrote in Romans 10. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Paul was quoting from Joel. But how can they call if they don’t first believe? And how can they believe if they haven’t heard? And how can they hear unless someone preaches to them? And how can they preach unless they’re sent? Well, Peter was sent to Cornelius and his household. And he preached to them about the Lord Jesus. And they believed. And they called out to the Lord. And they were saved. That’s the way God has chosen to work. That’s the way he has chosen to save us: through the reading and preaching of his word about Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit who works through the preaching of God’s word to convince us and to convert us.
So, in verse 15 Peter explains that as he spoke to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he had fallen on the Jews on the Day of Pentecost. And then verse 16: Peter remembered what the Lord Jesus had said about the difference between his ministry and John the Baptiser’s ministry. John could only make them wet with water. But the Lord Jesus was able to pour out his Spirit upon them. And then verse 17. And this is the conclusion to Peter’s speech: Since the Lord Jesus had clearly given his Spirit to the Gentiles just as he had given his Spirit to the Jews, then it’s clear that he was prepared to accept the Gentiles just has he had accepted the Jews. If God accepted them, then so would Peter.
Having heard these things, there was nothing more for the believers in Jerusalem to say except to praise God for granting repentance to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. And we should note carefully the way Luke puts this. They didn’t say:
Isn’t it great that the Gentiles repented!
Isn’t it great that God has granted them repentance.
You see, repentance, like faith, is the gift of God. None of us would ever believe and none of us would ever repent if it were not for God who enables us to repent and believe. The Apostle Paul taught the same thing to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2 where he advised the young pastor to gently instruct those who opposed his teaching in the hope that God would grant them repentance. And this reminds us, once again, that salvation is entirely God’s work. He’s the One who sent his Son to pay for our sins by his death on the cross. He’s the One who appoints and sends preachers to tell us the good news. He’s the One who works in us by his Spirit to convince us that the gospel is true. He’s the One who enables us to hate our sins and to turn from them in repentance. And he’s the One who enables us to turn with faith to the Saviour. Our salvation, from beginning to end, is his work. We owe it entirely to him. And so he deserves all the praise and the adoration both now and for evermore.
And notice, of course, that repentance is ‘repentance unto life’. Before God enables us to repent, we’re under his wrath and curse and we’re on the broad road that leads to destruction. But because of his grace and mercy to sinners like us, he enables us to turn around and to follow the narrow way that leads to everlasting life. And so, we refer to repentance as ‘repentance until life’ because it leads from everlasting condemnation to everlasting life.
And, of course, repentance means turning from our sins with grief and hatred. It’s with grief, because we’re sorry we’ve done wrong and we’re sorry we’ve offended our loving, heavenly Father. And it’s with hatred, because we now hate our sins and we want nothing more to do with them. And so, with grief and hatred we turn from our sins and we turn to God to receive his mercy. And we resolve to make every effort to fight against sin and temptation and to do whatever is right.
Repentance is not something we do once and never again. Every day we need to repent because every day we disobey our Father in heaven. And so, every day we should ask for his forgiveness and we should ask him to help us to repent of our sins and to obey him better. And as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, we need to examine ourselves. Ourselves, mind you. We’re not to examine the sins of others. We’re to examine ourselves to see if there is any sin to which we’re clinging and which we now need to confess and to turn from. We’re to examine ourselves to see if there’s anything in our lives which needs to change, some aspect of our lives which is not right. And we need to confess it to God. And we need to ask his help to put it right.
As we come to the Lord’s Table on Sunday, we come with gratitude, because our Saviour has paid for all our sins forever. But now he says to us: ‘Leave them behind. Leave your sins behind.’ And because we hate our sins and we love our Saviour who died for us, in our hearts we cry: ‘Lord, help me.’